Educational Absolutism

One thing that has slowly happened to me in my own development as a teacher – I’m now less absolute and sure of myself. Now, that may seem a contradiction and that after 25 years meandering through the fields and mountains of schools, classes, education, I’d have some solid land to sit upon. But I don’t think it a contradiction – let me explain.

When I was a younger teacher, I clung hard to ideas/beliefs/practices that I felt were researched, valid and worked. I’d cry out into what I believed to be the dark wilds of teaching and education like a prophet of yore, bright eyed, loud and a beard of locusts and honey. I’d come down from the mountain and I’d seen the light. In fact, I had seen nothing except what worked for me and a faint shadow of what the future could look like. Nothing more. Yet, I shook my fist and forsook so many who took a different path and climbed a different mountain.

Through time and through observing many other classrooms. Through discussions with many teachers and reading about the experiences of many others by way of connective technologies and social media – I have come to believe that in education, there are many ways to arrive at the holy land, the objective of an informed, critical thinking, curious, happy citizen of the world. There is no set “one way” and despite how many cling to their absolutism, I reject that kind of thinking. We too often mistake “my way” with “the way” – as would children.

Let me just give two brief examples (but I could share many).

I used to think using the L1 in class and translation was evil beyond all else. I’ve come to see this isn’t so. I’ve met many successful teachers using the L1 effectively in class, to help and support student learning.

I once thought that new technology had to be used by each and every teacher. If not, they were a discredit to the teaching profession. Dinosaurs with dictaphones would not do. I now know that technology can be such a blessing but there are other ways to get to the same destination and reach the same objectives.

The past few weeks, a number of the people I think of as my mentors showed me signs of absolutism that despite their great minds and wonderful deeds, I have to reject. It is a warning to us all – there isn’t room for moral or empirical absolutism when it comes to education and even more so the truth. It is a dark road this way and we should reject it. Here are these examples.

1. Diane Ravitch tells us what a “real educator” sounds like. I reject this kind of holier than thou cry, however well-intended. Teachers can sound in many ways, come in many forms. To paraphrase the Buddha, “he who knows what a teacher is, does not know what a teacher is.” Besides, I also find the notion that there is a line between good / bad educators very revolting and patronizing / divisive. Exactly at which point does one start to become a “real” educator?

2. Ira Socol tweeted the following.

I had to protest, this is too absolute.  Great when discussing knowledge/thinking but education is not just the neck up. With skills like language, sports, music – repetition is necessary and also part of learning.  The body does think …..

3.  Sugata Mitra posted on FB that we should ignore all blog posts, Facebook comments, websites – they only sell opinion and the only truths to be had, can only come through peer-reviewed research.     Sorry but this too is terribly absolutist and it was disappointing coming from someone who I feel is pushing against the gatekeepers of knowledge and for allowing students to discover the truth on their own.  As an academic, I know well so many of us are full of shit. Even the peer reviewed stuff and nobody has a monopoly on the truth – it is a construct and we do well to listen to our peers, converse and come to our own conclusions. Especially in the human, so human science of teaching / education / learning. I think back at how only a few scant decades ago eugenics was peer-reviewed and accepted, so too behaviorism.

So there you have it – my own call for us to be less cocky and sure. To discuss and allow that others might come to the same conclusions through different practices, approaches, methods, means …….   This message is especially to our administrators and governments who so quickly launch programs, edicts and musts and have tos …… This is mere cosmetic posturing – the real work is on the ground with those walking along their own path. Come walk with us!

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